8 June, 2023


Colombo Plan Politics: Golden Era Of Canada-Sri Lanka Relations – Part-II

By Senaka A. Samarasinghe –

Senaka A. Samarasinghe

Colombo Plan was an early step for postwar globalization, building up new relations with South Asian countries, and sheltering these countries from communist infiltration in the cold war of Western countries against communist Russia, with multinationals as a supporting organization to the Commonwealth. There was also the hidden objective of establishing world hegemony by the USA as is noted by developing Diego Garcia as a military base in the Indian Ocean and boosting the US dollar against the Pound Sterling (6). During this period (1950s and 1960s) with the Rubber Boom just after WW11, Sri Lanka stood to gain and the accruing funds were invested in infrastructure projects such as the New Kelaniya Bridge, the Peradeniya Garden University, Colombo National Hospital, Regent Street building complex, and converting the Galle Road from single to double lanes from Maliban Junction, Ratmalana to Moratuwa. 

In 1955, a conference was held in Bandung (Indonesia) to formulate another power group as an aftermath to WW11. It culminated with the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1961) with her President Josip Tito as first Chairman. In August 1976, the 5th NAM Summit was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka under the chairmanship of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, with 86 participants and 30 observers present. Incidentally, Mrs. Bandaranaike was the world’s first female Prime Minister. NAM progressed and could be said to be second only to the United Nations. Two-thirds of UN members representing 55% of the world population had membership of NAM. It advocated policies and practises of mutual benefit to all its members steering clear of the two political power blocs at the time. It opposed imperialism and any form of colonialism and aimed at creating a new economic order by calling for new commodity arrangements among member socialist and non-socialist countries. In 1970, Yugoslavia funded the Mahaweli – Stage One dam project in Polgolla in Central Sri Lanka close to Kandy.       

Mahaweli Downstream Development Programme

UNDP/FAO assisted the Sri Lankan Government to formulate the Master Plan for the Mahaweli Downstream Development Programme under which there was to be a stepwise implementation over a period of 30 years of 13 river basins named as Systems A to M. Under the multipurpose development scheme about 365,000 hectares of land and 470 MW capacity of hydro power were to be developed and farming families were to be settled to cultivate mainly the staple food rice (paddy) on their one hectare of land. On Feb 28th 1970, the first sod for the Polgolla dam, planned by local engineers with the support of East European countries with Yugoslavia leading, was ceremonially cut. In 1977, with the decision to implement an Accelerated Mahaweli Development Program (AMDP), the construction of five (5) reservoirs funded by Western countries, namely, Maduru Oya (Canada), Victoria (United Kingdom), Kotmale (Sweden), Randenigala and Rantembe (Germany) was planned.

Maduru Oya Project funded by Canada

The construction of the Maduru Oya reservoir was completed in 1982 with Canadian funds disbursed through CIDA. The reservoir has a capacity of 597 MCM. The mean annual flow to the reservoir from its own catchment was estimated at 380 MCM. Further, the reservoir is being augmented with Mahaweli waters diverted at Minipe, through a trans-basin canal to Ulhitiya-Rathkinda twin-reservoir and to Maduru Oya reservoir through a link tunnel.

Canadian Assistance to the Maduru Oya Project

Under Accelerated Mahaweli Development Project – AMDP (1977), two main Systems, namely System B (134,096 ha) and C (71,049 ha), were taken for construction initially after establishing the Mahaweli Authority under the Mahaweli Authority Act of 1979. System B is the largest area to be developed according to the Master Plan. As mentioned earlier five main reservoirs were taken by five Western countries for funding. During the same period two water sector development projects were also started viz. (a) France started the Gin Ganga and Nilwala Ganga flood protection schemes in the Southern Province (1979) and (b) Japan funded the Inginimitiya reservoir project in the North-Western Province (1981). Other than the water sector Netherlands Government funded the University of Ruhuna (1978). Greater Colombo Economic Commission (later changed in 1992 to the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka – BoI) was established in 1978. Investors came from both the power blocs due to the strategic location of Sri Lanka. It was during the same period that the open economy concept was introduced to Sri Lanka for boosting the economy.

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) supports NGOs – South Asia Partnership Sri Lanka

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has a long-term affiliation with Sri Lanka. In 1981 South Asia Partnership Sri Lanka (SAPSRI) was established. SAPSRI helped more than 500 village-based organizations to uplift the socio-economic status of the marginalized population. During early stages, SAPSRI played an intermediary role between community-based organizations (CBOs) and Canadian donor agencies. In 1992, SAPSRI focused on long-term development projects by introducing the Cluster Development Program (CDP). Today this is the main activity of SAPSRI. The CDB is a people-centred development model, which links groups with shared concerns and transform them into self-reliant communities. Currently, CDP is active in more than 150 villages in 10 districts across the country. CDP helps empowering individuals by strengthening their capacity to improve their lives and communities.

SAPSRI implemented many capacity building programs focusing on human resource development, enterprise and child-focused development, promotion of peace and harmony, and local governance. SAPSRI has broadened its network of support to include innovative partnerships with international NGOs, citizen’s groups, and private sector organizations. This process facilitated the setting up of local networks of CBOs in different parts of the country. Some of the CBOs are active in peace and reconciliation work among racial groups.

Sri Lanka Canada Development Fund – Bilateral Development Assistance (1987 – 2002)

In 1987, the Sri Lanka Canada Development Fund (SLCDF) was formed for bilateral development assistance of the Canadian Government through Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). SLCDF disbursed Canadian NGO funds to Sri Lankan CBOs to achieve sustainable human development and fostering NGO networks to address poverty and inequality through capacity building. During the period 1987-2002, SLCDF had provided support for 50 projects through 50 NGOs aimed at Agriculture and Rural Development, Institutional Strengthening and Human Resources Development, Women in Development, and Partnership building. All the 50 Sri Lankan organizations were linked to 11 Canadian organizations (7).

One such beneficiary was the Dharmavijaya Foundation (DVF) that was established under Act of Parliament No. 62 of 1979 and is still functioning. It is a voluntary development-oriented organisation working on Buddhist principles to promote the total development of society, both spiritually and materially. The services of DVF are available to all, irrespective of societal differences whether racial, caste, creed or language. In the early 1990s, the DVF was linked with the Cardinal Lèger and His Endeavours organisation through the SLCDF to implement a multi-faceted Human Resource Development Programme of the DVF. On two subsequent occasions, too, the DVF has been assisted firstly for infrastructural development and secondly to introduce environment-friendly, energy efficient and cost effective Habitech or Lockbrid building system developed for the benefit of low-income groups by Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand (8).

In 2002, the name of the Sri Lanka Development Fund was altered to Sri Lanka Centre for Development Facilitation (SLCDF) and registered under the Company’s Act and the Social Services Act, as a non-profit and voluntary participatory organization. It is a continuation of the Canada funded SLCDF project. As a voluntary non-profit organization, the SLCDF is currently managed by a Board of Management consisting of university professors and professionals working on a voluntary basis.

In 2004, the Asian Tsunami disaster affected thousands of people in the coastal belt and nearly 34,000 persons died and many were displaced. SLCDF got heavily involved in the relief and rehabilitation programmes. Canadian NGOs such as HOPE International Development Agency, World Accord, Cardinal Léger & His Endeavors, Development and Peace and many other Canadian agencies and University of Guelph supported post-tsunami livelihood development activities. Apart from Canadian partners, the USA based Heifer International, Oxfam Hong Kong and many other international organizations provided funds for Tsunami relief and rehabilitation interventions.

SLCDF changed its policy of working with NGOs to government affiliated Women’s Rural Development Societies (WRDSs), Rural Development Societies (RDSs), Farmer Organizations, and Cooperatives. Further, the SLCDF continued to help the war affected families in the North and East.  In 2013, it implemented a project in Kilinochchi in the Northern Province for 3 years. This project provided development assistance to 1012 families for dairy and conservation farming, value addition to dairy products, rehabilitation of minor irrigation tanks and capacity building of WRDSs, RDSs, Farmer Organizations and Cooperative Societies. At present, the number engaged in dairy farming has increased to around 1500 families and these farmers are producing 20% of the Kilinochchi District milk production. The SLCDF used Canadian and other donor funds to assist the war affected families in North and East and to start different livelihood programs.

If any Canadian authenticated organization or any well-wisher wants to start a capacity building project with SLCDF, the organization or well-wisher can select a project and raise funds. Based on collected funds the donor (organization) could write to SLCDF asking them to send a project proposal and proposed implementing methodology. After agreeing to the proposal the SLCDF will implement and monitor the project with funds transferred by the donor in Canada.


In 1971 Teresa Hayter wrote a book named: Aid as Imperialism. Teresa noted in the third chapter how international aid agencies disbursed aid with laid down conditions for Latin American countries (9). In Sri Lanka, just after World War II, a regional organization called Colombo Plan provided funds to ensure South Asian Countries to be with the Western power bloc without aligning with the emerging pro-communist countries. Under the Colombo Plan, Canada supported Sri Lanka to modernize rail transport by providing locomotives (1954), in agricultural development through the Hardy Institute, Ampara in the Eastern Province (1956), and improving aviation facilities through the Colombo International Airport development project (1960s). The close links the two countries had was cemented by the visit of the Prime Minister of Canada, Rt. Hon. Pierre Trudeau in 1971. Later Canada provided financial support to construct the Maduru Oya dam and reservoir, which is the largest reservoir in the Mahaweli Downstream Development Project (1982).

In order to show gratitude to the country of birth, Sri Lankan Canadians can think of small-scale capacity building projects to be implemented through SLCDF. Furthermore, Sri Lankans and Canadian Voluntary Organisations can co-partner programs in Sri Lanka either with the Government or with reputed Voluntary organisations directly or via SLCDF. It is for the mutual benefit of both countries to strengthen relations with dignity and work towards greater harmony and understanding as member countries of the Commonwealth. 

*Senaka A. Samarasinghe MSc – Coordinator, Institutional Development Unit (Retired), Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka

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